Advice for History Freshers: from me to you…
Many of you reading this blog post will be arriving at university for the first time and about to embark on your first steps to becoming a historian. The first few weeks of university are filled with a wealth of freshers’ activities before term gets going and you have that first essay to write. Panic?! Coming back to education after three years out in the world of work certainly made that first essay a challenge for me for several reasons. How many books should I read? How do I take book notes? How do I come up with an argument? How do I reference? How do get my piece of writing to resemble something that looks vaguely like an essay? No fear, here are some top tips from a (wise – well, maybe?) graduate student who all too well remembers the madness as if it were yesterday…
- You are not alone. This is an obvious point but it’s worth emphasising. Whatever age you are, wherever you are in the country, whatever type of history you’re studying – your peers will be just as daunted by that first essay as you are. Share your concerns, worries, issues, as you’ll not only help each other, but you’ll feel a whole lot better for realising you’re all in the same boat.
- Read the question. Read it again and then one more time – at least. Your essay question is likely going to sound pretty big and scary. Take small steps first and unpack the question. Break down the question. What are the key terms? Are there debates about the key terms? What events / people / concepts are mentioned? Are these clear-cut terms or is there some debate? Is your question set within a specific time period? How would your response change if you looked at it from an international / national / local / gendered perspective? Mindmap as much as you can before you start reading.
- Reading lists are long – and few students will ever work their way through the entirety of the reading list. If you can, ask your tutors to suggest some of the key works they’d recommend to get you going. Tutors should be more than happy to point you in the right direction. Alternatively, begin with general works which frame the wider period / key issues. Look at some of the early historiography and compare that with some of the latest scholarship. Is any of it relevant to current affairs? Does this make you look on the topic differently? Even reading a couple of works, you should get a sense of how the debates and methodologies in your chosen field have changed and what the main issues may be.
- Take notes and accept they won’t be perfect. Like me, a lot of friends in their second and third years look back on their first-year notes and exclaim ‘what was I thinking?!’ You’re not going to take perfect book notes (if there even is such a concept) – that’s one of the skills you’ll develop during your time as an undergrad, together with an individual style. People take notes differently: some use the Cornell method, others write as they read, others wait until the end. Advice given to me in the first weeks was to read without a pen in your hand. Think about what you’re reading rather than rushing to get everything written down. Once you’ve reached the end of a section / chapter, go back and ask yourself – what was the author’s main argument? What evidence did they use to support it? Do you agree?
- Have an opinion – even if you fear it’s ‘wrong’. ‘I’m only a fresher – how am I meant to know?’ was my response when people said for me not to sit on the fence and take a stance. ‘I’ve only been reading on this for a short time, how am I in a position to critique historians who have spent many years researching this topic?’ You might have only been reading on your topic for a short time, but you’ll come across some works you like for specific reasons – and others you don’t. You’ll think some historians have made some cracking points, others less convincing ones. Your tutors won’t expect you to come up with a definitive answer to the question set – because in most cases there won’t be one. Your tutors are looking to find out what you think. They know what historian x and y argues on the subject. They want to see how you grapple with the arguments. As you begin writing about your opinion more, it’ll become more natural – and occasionally disagreeing with professional historians will become less terrifying and actually quite enjoyable…trust me.
- Book reviews are your friend. Looking at a couple of reviews of some of the books on your reading list will not only give you a succinct summary of the book’s main arguments, but will also point you to some of the main critiques of it. That way either reading the review before or after (though ideally not instead of the book – but needs must sometimes) will prompt you to reflect on the overall argument and its pitfalls. Don’t just take the review as it is – do you agree with it? Do you think the reviewer is being harsh (trust me, some reviews are brutal!) or are they fair comments? If you’re feeling ambitious, maybe you could write a short review of the book to summarise your thoughts on it yourself.
- …and topic sentences are too. You’ve done your reading, you’ve got some notes. So what’s next? The essay. Planning works for some and not for others, so I’m not going to elaborate any further. I will, however, say a few words on topic sentences. The topic sentence is the first sentence of every paragraph. Your tutor should be able to understand the main argument and direction of your essay through the topic sentences, which should stand alone. Either begin by writing the topic sentence of every paragraph, or go back at the end and cut and paste every topic sentence into a new paragraph. This simple test will allow you to see if you’ve got the gist of your essay clear in your mind – and whether that will be clear to your reader.
- Finally, have fun and enjoy the experience. Not to be cheesy, but you only get your time as an undergrad once. In years to come, you’ll reminisce over those essay crises and bliss of ignorance. But for a moment, step back and reflect. You’re at university because you have a passion for what happened in the past and/or you see the study of History as vital to the next step in your life journey. You now have before you three years to take your understanding of History to the next level, as well as enjoy the university experience. You have top experts commenting on your work, giving you advice on how to improve, personalised to you. The more essays you write, the easier it gets. Make the most of it – because at the end of this, your degree will be a footnote in history…